For about a decade, Apocalypse Now seemed to be the last word on the Vietnam War. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterwork was so all-encompassing that it nearly killed him, nearly killed Martin Sheen, and put much of his cast and crew in serious danger. In doing so, it fused fact and fiction, and transformed the process of shooting the film into an integral part of the film’s own atmosphere. By the closing scenes, Coppola had evokes (or enacted) the war as a rupture in reality as Americans understood it, and a foreclosure of the future as they might understand it. Whether you call that unreal, surreal or post-real, it seemed to awe films about Vietnam during the 80s, which split into two camps. On the one hand, you had releases like Platoon that settled for realism without even trying to rival Coppola’s insane visions; on the other hand, you had the rise of the action genre, which promised to keep Coppola’s dissociation of reality at bay by way of a new kind of hyperbolised and militarised male body.
In 1990, however, writer Bruce Joel Rubin, and director Adrian Lyne, finally came up with a compelling response to Apocalypse Now – and the most ambitious Vietnam war film since Apocalypse Now. Whereas Coppola presented the war as a gradual dissociation of reality, Jacob’s Ladder effectively eschews any reality-principle from the outset, with the exception of a brief opening credit sequence that depicts helicopters taking off and flying over what appears to be Vietnam. For a moment, it looks like we might be in for a regular war film, as Lyne introduces a group of soldiers, and focuses on one in particular – Jacob Lyne, played by Tim Robbins. No sooner have we met these soldiers, however, than an eerie atonality settles over their camp. This coincides with a mist that drifts in from the trees, recalling the plumes of coloured smoke that signalled the outer limits of reality in Coppola’s vision. All of a sudden, the men experience a variety of mysterious symptoms – some clutch at different parts of their body in agony, while some seem to be having a vision that lies beyond the camera’s scope.
In order to escape this surreal frenzy, Jacob flees into the jungle, where he’s impaled by a spear at the very moment he wakes up in a dilapidated subway car in New York City. This is the first of many transitional spaces that come to constitute Jacob’s visions. For a while, he lingers in the car, and then he explores outwards, walking to the next carriage, where he encounters a woman who refuses to speak to him, and a homeless man with a weird phallic appendage poking out of his pants. When he gets off at his subway station, he finds it deserted, with all the doors locked, meaning that he has no recourse but to walk down the tracks. Every part of this trajectory accentuates the grimy textures of New York at its most decayed, until Jacob narrowly escapes being hit by a train, which seems to be full of strange masked figures as it passes him by. Finally, and suddenly, he wakes in a Brooklyn apartment.
During this first part of the film you just have to go with Rubin and Lyne’s leaps in logic, and fashion a rough realist narrative out of these three disparate scenes. According to Hollywood convention, it seems like Jacob was injured in Vietnam, but returned safely to America, where he has nightmares that recall his time in the jungle. These nightmares continue for the first act of the film, and typically take place against dilapidated infrastructure. The next one occurs in an isolated pedestrian onramp to the Williamsburg Bridge, where Jacob is confronted by the same masked figures in a car, and trapped up against one of the graffiti-scrawled walls, before “waking up” again to what we can only assume the “reality” of his Brooklyn apartment.
Both of these visions take place in spaces once occupied by mass transit, and give rise to a more general fixation with transitory spaces. In fact, Jacob’s identity tends to be defined primarily through these transitory spaces. We learn that he met his lover Jezebel, played by Elizabeth Pena, in the post office where they both work – she as a mail sorter, he as a mail deliverer. We also learn that Jacob was married to another woman, Sarah, played by Patricia Kalmeber, before the war, but that their relationship broke down with the death of their son Gabe, played by Macauley Culkin. When Jacob receives a series of old photographs from Sarah, Jezebel promptly dumps them down the apartment’s incinerator chute – and the camera oddly chooses to follow them, taking us to the bottom of this transitory conduit and honing in on the photographs as these resiudes of Jacob’s former life corrode and disappear.
As all that might suggest, it’s hard to discern a stable sense of reality during these opening scenes – and Lyne accentuates this with two distinct directorial gestures. First, he shoots New York with a Soviet austerity, interiority and weariness, which he punctuates with moments of visionary infrastructure that recall Andrei Tarkovsky, especially Solaris and Stalker. Rather than returning to a triumphant capitalist state, Jacob has come home to an extension of the Eastern Bloc, which appears to have decayed even quicker when transplanted onto American shores. The legacy of Vietnam is not the survival of capitalism, but the demise of communism, which makes even the most iconic New York spaces seem drab and destined to a slow death.
Second, Lyne brings in black figures to disrupt Jacob’s sense of time and place. In one surreal scene, a group of black women sing the Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman” to Jacob as he walks home beneath a necrotic subway overpass. Jacob lingers in this decaying space for a long time, unsure of how to read this missive from mid-century. Later on, Jacob consults a black psychic at a party, who predicts his future as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” plays in the background, embedding the future in the past. Jacob’s climactic vision, at the end of the first act, involves a demonic soldier who morphs into a muscular black man and back again, leading onto a strobe-lit hallucination of an abject reptilian creature that slides around and then penetrates Jezebel to death with a single gigantic tooth that impales her head and groin.
This scattering of African-American and Soviet signifiers further unsettles the film’s reality field by evoking anxieties that are normally repressed or assuaged by realism as Hollywood understood it at this moment – anxieties about the possibility of socialism, and anxieties about the emasculating potential of black men. Jacob is symbolically castrated by a black soldier, and immersed in what appears to be an extension of the Eastern Bloc to New York City – and yet the film doesn’t congeal these two gestures into an overt message either, since that would be to neutralise their potency. Instead, these images disrupt the film without offering anything stable as a substitute – without permitting the film to resolve around them.
Apocalypse Now started with a relatively recognisable reality and descended into madness, but Jacob’s Ladder is never grounded in a reality field to begin with – not even in the Vietnam sequence, or in the Vietnam flashbacks, which quickly turn eerie and supernatural as well. The one stable hold we have on reality is the helicopters that drift over the credit sequence, before we even meet Jacob, and yet the very fact of starting so emphatically with these choppers inevitably recalls their pivotal role in departing us from reality within Coppola’s film, which starts to enter its hallucinatory phase proper with the infamous Flight of the Valkyries.
Where Apocalypse Now takes the war film as far as it can go, Jacob’s Ladder concedes, from the outset, that there is no realistic vocabulary, or cohesive genre, to capture Vietnam anymore. Rather than expand the peculiar reality of the war, as Coppola did, Lyne creates a kind of negative reality, collapsing any semblance of realism by pulling in as much arcane, occult and supernatural imagery as possible, until the film is virtually abstract – a remarkable proposition for a release that was aimed at a mainstream audience at the cusp of the 90s. If the start of the first act recalls Solaris or Stalker, then the end of the first act is closer to Mirror, foreshadowing the infamous centrepiece of the film in the second act – Jacob being wheeled down a hospital corridor, where he’s confronted by every occult abstraction he’s seen so far.
This collapse of reality and vision ruptures the most predominant motif in Vietnam war films in the wake of Apocalypse Now – dreams and nightmares. As Coppola made so clear in his film, Vietnam itself represented a new reality field for the American soldiers who arrived in droves. This was partly because the jungle was so different to the United States, and because jungle warfare was so different from the imagery of the two world wars that had defined military combat in American media. But it was also because this unsettling hellscape evoked the possibility of a Communist world order more viscerally and immediately than most direct American combat in WWII. Coppola never resolved these two realities – he just evoked them – while Vietnam films of the 80s repressed them by resorting to a common trope of Vietnam as nightmare, or the United States before Vietnam as a dream that could never be recovered.
By contrast, Jacob’s Ladder refuses to differentiate between reality and nightmare, exuding an emergent reality field that slips in and out of dream-states with abandon. Each and every sequence could be a dream sequence, in what quickly comes to feel like A Nightmare on Elm Street inflected through Vietnam, suffused with the same schisms between sleeping and waking life. As in Elm Street, the pivotal transition scene takes place when Jacob falls asleep in a bath, except that here we haven’t even got the luxury of seeing this threshold condensed to a single supernatural antagonist. Wes Craven named Elm Street after the location of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, invoking one of the critical events of the Cold War as part of his horror vision, and Jacob’s Ladder does the same for Vietnam, retroactively claiming the Elm Street franchise as the most vital Vietnam films of the 80s, since they provide the vocabulary, and the threshold between life and dreaming, that was needed to finally respond to Coppola.
No surprise, then, that Jacob’s Ladder is very much in sync with where the Elm Street franchise stood on the cusp of the 90s. Whereas the earlier films preserved some notional distinction between reality and dreaming, the later films collapsed these two categories entirely – most notably A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, which bookended Jacob’s Ladder in 1989 and 1991 respectively. These later instalments depend heavily on lurid prosthetics and elaborate effects to make the nightmare scenes seem even more materially present than the real world, breaking down any distinction between reality and nightmare in the process. More generally, the early 90s represented a high watermark for what might be termed prosthetic sequences – fantasy tableaux that aimed for maximum materiality while not quite collapsing into camp or complete absurdity.
Jacob’s Ladder traffics in these fantasies that rupture the consolatory function of fantasy itself, producing a profoundly hauntological film – an embodiment of Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx at the very moment he was writing it. Derrida argued that the end of the Cold War meant that Marxism was destined to be haunted by futures that never came to pass, spectres of the Communist project that could only survive in a Gothic and muted fashion. We see this hauntology in the “flashbacks” to Vietnam, which lose all of their temporal significance against such a diffuse reality field, to the point where they could equally be premonitions of an unreal or post-real future from Vietnam. In other words, the film is set across a series of lost futures, rather than in a stable past or present. Some of these lost futures are immediate, some are more long-term, but they all displace and distend reality so thoroughly that it takes four twists for the film to “reset” reality enough to achieve an ending.
The first of these twists occurs in the second act, when Jacob teams up with his Vietnam buddies, and realises that they’re all being haunted by the same visions. A reality field momentarily emerges here, as the visions recede, and the veterans hire a lawyer, played by Jason Alexander, to investigate what actually happened in Vietnam. Yet this consolidation of reality is fleeting, since the men quickly pull out of the lawsuit, and Jacob is left to ponder the one piece of information he gleaned from it – that he wasn’t even in Vietnam to begin with. Instead, those opening helicopters, which provided the film with its one tenuous link to reality, were actually flying over Thailand, where Jacob and his mates were part of an American training program in which something unspeakably horrific seems to have occurred.
Although Jacob is haunted by Vietnam, thenm he was never in Vietnam. This is the last stage in the dissociation of reality that Apocalypse Now initiated – a Vietnam War film in which the Vietnam War itself ceases to be a stable referent, and is instead absorbed back into the splintered reality that it precipitated. Again, this is the exact opposite of most 80s responses to Coppola, which tended to present the Vietnam War as an ultimate signifier – most notably in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, which also bookends Jacob’s Ladder, and which presents the war as a testing-ground for Stone’s fixation with conspiracies and deep state secrets. Whereas Coppola and Lyne present Vietnam as a reality rupture that finally displaces even itself, Stone’s Vietnam is a portal to a unifying truth if the viewer can just remain open to it.
This leads on to the second twist of the film – that Jacob and his buddies were subjected to a secret experiment. We don’t learn much about this experiment at first, except that it was initiated in Saigon, which was also the point of departure for Apocalypse Now. Just as Willard travelled upriver from Saigon into a dispersing reality field, so Jacob travelled from Saigon into an experimental matrix that has warped his sense of reality ever since. Lyne takes a little while to clarify what this experiment entailed, allowing the sheer fact of it to resonate until Vietnam itself feels like an experiment that was foisted upon the American military, and upon the American population, for covert reasons that have never been satisfactorily articulated.
The third twist of the film unfolds the exact nature of this experiment. Against the most dilapidated infrastructure yet – one of the rotting piers on the East River – a government operative fills in the details for Jacob and the audience. This operative was hired to produce “the Ladder,” a potion that targets and activates the most primal fear centres in the brain, and then test it on Jacob’s platoon by introducing small doses into their food and water. Rather than motivating them against the Viet Cong, however, the Ladder turned against each other, resulting in a killing spree that ended with Jacob being stabbed by one of his buddies. Worse, this drug has stayed in the soldiers’ systems, explaining the bursts of visionary fear they’ve experienced ever since. Worse still, the architect of this entire scenario, the operative speaking to Jacob now, was at one time a part of the counterculture, but was compelled to sell his soul to the government to get out of jail time on Rikers’ Island for manufacturing LSD.
As this operative explains, the primal fear that this drug produces is so intense that it ruptures any sense of reality, even in an infinitesimal dose. This is fear that’s inimical to realism, alternatively eschewing and heightening reality, suspending Jacob in a strange space between the surreal and the unreal that captures the intuitive and inexorable logic of nightmares better than just about any horror film I’ve seen. In fact, this is the first film in a long time that gave me nightmares – not nightmares about the events of the film, but nightmares that hooked on to its weird refracted visions, which capture the odd disorientation of dreams as well, the way they make us feel like we’re witnessing things through a fever, or without our glasses, trapped in an inertia that muffles any action other than waking up, which can never happen here. Watching Lyne’s film is precisely like not being able to wake up when we need to, not being able to breach the dream just when when the dream itself enjoins us to do so.
For that reason, Jacob’s mind feels especially embodied for long stretches of the film. The infamous hospital scene is especially fixated on the threshold between brain and mind, as a series of doctors place his scalp in position with screws, and then insert a needle into his forehead. Jacob’s visions also tend to animate his entire central nervous system, producing perennial back pains that emphasise the materiality of these supposedly “unreal” worlds by embedding them into his skeletal infrastructure. This may explain why Danny Aiello is so foregrounded, in cameo, as Jacob’s chiropractor, since he forms the point of connection between back and brain, body and mind, reality and dream. He’s as much a therapist or seer as a doctor, manipulating Jacob’s bones while he encourages him to talk through his visions.
This third twist thus ushers in a strange distended space, halfway between body and world, as Jacob returns home from his conversation with the operative. His body seems to sync up in strange ways with the city that spreads around him, while Lyne’s distorted angles and expressionist perspectives reduce the city to just one feature – those curving plumes of smoke that signalled the threshold of Coppola’s reality field in the more surreal sections of Apocalypse Now. This dissolution of space ushers in a similar dissolution of time, as Jacob gets into a cab, has a “flashback” to being stabbed in the war, then sees a “Nixon Now” badge on the dashboard, only to discover that it’s vanished when he looks for it a second time. Between the Vietnam flashback and the Nixon badge, it’s impossible to tell what is present and past, as the city embodies the transition between reality and nightmare, the cusp between vision and world, more mercurially than any of the intermediary spaces we have witnessed so far.
This all ends with Jacob returning to his family home – the supreme site of spatiotemporal resolution in Hollywood cinema. Yet something is off – the house is curiously empty and absent, while Jacob’s body language is distended and drifting. Eventually he falls asleep in the middle of a living room that also feels strangely unfurnished, if not quite vacant enough to signify anything emphatic either. Finally, he wakes to a vision of his son Gabe, who died before the war. All the film’s diffuseness climaxes just before he sees Gabe, and yet Gabe doesn’t completely resolve it, despite leading Jacob to the staircase, which has turned into a portal of some kind, ushering the pair to a noumenal radiance that seems to absorb them into oblivion.
There are only a few seconds of the film left, and Lyne uses them to give us the final twist, which is that everything we have seen has taken place in the few seconds between Jacob being stabbed in the chest, and then dying in a Vietnam hospital. What we’re seeing are the last seconds of Jacob’s life, his dying visions, poised in a precarious present moment that can never quite resolve into a flashback or premonition. We never find out if the past happened exactly as Jacob remembers it, or if the future he envisages comes to pass. Nor do we learn if any of the previous twists are true, or if they’re simply the only way Jacob’s mind can make sense of his dying moments. We don’t even know if he’s been wounded by his fellow soldiers, high on the fear drug, or whether this is a routine engagement with the Viet Cong after all.
Instead, the film ends, in the most profound and concrete way, as a compressed evocation of lost futures. In fact, it’s not even quite right to say that the film ends in this way – it retrospectively (but also pre-emptively) enacts itself as no more nor less than the sum of the lost futures that it evokes. In doing so, it offers Vietnam as no more nor less than the sum of the lost futures that it produced. Whereas Coppola’s Vietnam was on the verge of exceeding the here and now, Lyne’s Vietnam occupies the never and the impossible, the places the Vietnam War meant we could never go, and the things it meant we could never see. It was released over thirty years ago, but it still may be the most original Vietnam War film since Coppola.